Tennessee went on the road to Pittsburgh looking to avenge the loss last season and continue building momentum inside the program. After a sloppy second half, the Vols finally finished off the Panthers 34-27 in overtime, off the arm of Hendon Hooker.
There was nothing about this game that was pretty, including a third quarter that saw both teams go scoreless and struggle to find anything resembling a decent offense.
Tennessee entered the second half with a 24-17 lead and without having to face Panther starting QB Kedon Slovis, didn’t return due to injury.
“How bout that effort from our defense, man,” Vols head coach Josh Heupel said. “Third quarter offensively, we didn’t do anything there, a dominant performance from them in the second half. We said we had to come in here and compete for sixty minutes and our kids did it, to the very end.”
“Those guys just continuing to compete, battle and fight,” Heupel added. “From where we took over and how we’ve learned as a football program to battle and compete, it ain’t ever gonna be perfect. What a victory for this program.”
He is right about this program, compared to where they were last season.
Yes, Hooker and the offense had a tough second half, but they found a way to win in overtime, which teams in the past wouldn’t have done in Knoxville. Hooker finished the game 27-42 for 325 yards and 2 touchdowns, adding 27 yards on the ground.
It was the touchdown pass to Cedric Tillman in overtime that gave them the lead, needing the defense to step up one last time.
If there is anything you can takeaway from this game, it would most likely be the effort from that defensive unit, with Aaron Beasley leading the way with 14 total tackles on the night.
Slovis threw for 195 yards in the first half, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Due to injury, he was replaced by Nick Patti, who valiantly led his Panthers to overtime, after taking a beating for the final thirty minutes.
But if the Tennessee special teams wouldn’t have a blocked field goal or a muffed punt, who knows what this game would’ve looked like.
It’s all about surviving and advancing in college football, which is exactly what Heupel was harping on during his postgame presser.
“For our whole staff, man, this is a program win,” Heupel said. “It takes everybody, from me to our full-time coaches down to the equipment staff and everybody that’s here on this trip, man. It’s a program win.”
The Tennessee running back duo of Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright only rushed for 64 yards on the night, leaving it to Hendon Hooker and this receiving core to get it done through the air.
Tillman certainly deserves player of the game honors, finishing with 9 receptions for 162 yards and the touchdown in overtime. We also saw Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy come up big for the Vols, with Hyatt catching eleven passes for 73 yards and McCoy hauling in 58 yards and 1 touchdown.
But it all came down to the defense, which showed grit in the second half. They bent a lot, but at the end, they didn’t break. In a crazy stat, Pittsburgh actually ran six more total plays than the Vols did, but were 5-17 on 3rd down attempts.
Now the Vols must prepare for Akron, followed by the Florida Gators in Knoxville. It wasn’t pretty in Pittsburgh, but this team will take it. Going on the road and getting a win is already tough, but playing the way Tennessee did in the second half and still getting the win, that shows growth, especially on the defensive side.
“I thought our defense absolutely battled in second, third and fourth quarters and got put in a bunch of sudden-change situations. Handled that really well for the most part and just were relentless all night long.
“Awesome to come out on top in this one against a really good football team,” Heupel added. “Players and staff need to enjoy this one tonight on the way back, and then we’ve got to grow and learn from it here when we get back in the building Sunday and Monday.”
As ‘Rocky Top’ blared inside the old Heinz field and the Tennessee players huddled in the corner of the end zone to celebrate with their fans, this was one win they were going to enjoy, no matter how they pulled it off.
It might’ve looked ugly, but the Vols are 2-0 and a game with Florida is looming in two weeks. Bring on the madness of college football.